The Introduction defines the character and scope of the book. It surveys the ways in which ‘general history’ and ‘literary history’ were related in the nineteenth century and how both were bound up with Whiggish interpretations of the national past. It identifies the significant change that was brought about by the more strenuous forms of ‘criticism’ that developed in the wake of the early work of T. S. Eliot and was carried on by such leading critics as William Empson and F. R. Leavis. It argues that a whole variety of forms of historical interpretation and historical assumption was present in the work of these critics, often carrying a strongly declinist message, and that such work filled a vacuum in wider public debate left by the withdrawal of History as an academic discipline into austere, archive-based research that eschewed larger interpretations about the direction of historical change.
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